The government of Sierra Leone Tuesday in Freetown gave a full-throated support for expanded freedom of the media in the sub region, stressing that journalism is the oxygen of democracy, and that freedom of expression has been the cue for all positive revolutions in the world.
This view was advanced by the Minister of Information, Mohamed Swarray, while speaking at the official launch of Dubawa, West Africa’s leading fact-checking organisation for stemming the spread of misinformation and disinformation and for the amplification of truth in public policy, public health and the media.
The minister, speaking at the Country Lodge Hotel, venue of the launch, said the awareness of the central role of media freedom as a “condition for a thriving democracy is what led the current Sierra Leonean administration to push for the repeal, last year, of the 1965 Criminal defamation law in the country; to welcome the decision of the Sierra Leonean Association of Journalists [SLAJ] to lead on the peer regulation of the media; and for the government to pass a Right to Information law” that opened up public information in the purview of government to citizen’s access and scrutiny.
Mr Swarray then saluted the vision of the Premium Times Centre for Investigative journalism, PTCIJ, for opening its office in Sierra Leone saying “the government of Sierra Leone welcomes you, assuring you of an enduring partnership, and will relentlessly support you,” adding that Dubawa’s entry into the Sierra Leonean media space bode well for sanitizing the growing wave of fake news on the crest of a fourth industrial revolution that has democratized mobile telephony and access to digital platforms, and “with our growing youthful population.”
“This is a veritable context for fake news but the solution is not through draconian laws” remarked Mr Swarray whose government and Ghana are the only two West African states who are currently members of the Global Media Freedom Coalition formed in July 2019 as a partnership of countries working together to advocate for media freedom and safety of journalists and hold to account those who harm journalists for doing their job. The Coalition’s mission is to defend media freedom where it is under threat.
“If we want to build democracy and development, we have to come to terms with the fact that the relationship between the media and the government is a marriage of convenience; otherwise the whole process of governance will come to atrophy…we really have to see it as a relationship of convenience,” Mr Swarray emphasised, urging journalists to shun the pressures from those “who want to use you to take political advantage, simply portray the government in a bad light, or for sheer pecuniary advantage.”
Sierra Leone’s Minister of Information, Mohamed Swarray
The minister urged journalists to practice a journalism of responsibility and not share company with those who “have a phone, have access to social media and have grudge” pointing out that in the new environment of the pandemic, and of vaccine hesitancy, we must define our role as promoting the truth, access the fact before publishing and here is where working with Dubawa can help us all.”
In his remarks, President of Sierra Leonean Association of Journalists [SLAJ], Ahmed Nasralla, argued that “Indeed, in this age of growing information crisis, which is a much more devastating pandemic than COVID-19, powered by the digital revolution, the media has become a victim of circumstance. And so, fact-checking organisations like Dubawa are the rescuers, the warriors of truth, to help the independent media and its practitioners stay the course by adapting to the needs of a dynamic digital environment.”
Mr Nasralla said the overwhelming “mis-representation of facts, political propaganda, political advertising, falsehood, distorted news, conspiracy theories, and many more can spread exponentially, and so we need fact-checking platforms like Dubawa to help limit the detrimental impact of such type of information on societies.”
The SLAJ president called for fact-checking exercises “to be done in a proportionate speed to contain the damage that will be done, if not already done, by publication of the mis-information” because according to him “the challenge is that the fact-checking- which is basically an exercise in verification, debunking, and correction of untruths- is done after publication of the mis-information and after it has spread widely on the web and social media platforms.”
Despite the pervasive stretch of misinformation, Mr Nasralla, taking a futuristic view of the information landscape, remained optimistic. “In 10 years time, the role of the media in providing accurate information, exposing corruption, holding public officials and governments to account, educating and raising awareness, etc., will not change much. What will change is the demand for greater responsibility of the media in combating fake news, hate speech, misinformation, disinformation, and conspiracy theories, all of which have culminated into a raging media virus called infodemic,” he said.
Willette James, Head of the department of Journalism at the Fouray Bay University, said the arrival of Dubawa will reinforce the important work of strengthening ethics and accountability in the media while Ibrahim Shaw, Chairman of the Right to Information Access Commission, said Dubawa will add a significant value to the promotion of accountability in governance as well as greater responsibility in media practice. “We will be happy to offer all the help and assistance to make your work concrete and meaningful,” he said.
In her remarks, Oluwatosin Alagbe, Programme Director of the PTCIJ, explained the Sierra Leonean Launch of Dubawa in the context of the organisation’s mission to help promote integrity and ethics in the governance regime of the sub region. She thanked the Sierra Leonean government for the warm acceptance of the new office and promised to help build the capacity of the media, civil society, and public institutions in advanced skills of verification.
Earlier, Dapo Olorunyomi, Executive Director of the PTCIJ, said it was logical for Dubawa to berth in Freetown, the home of the first newspaper in West Africa. “For all of us in the sub-region, particularly those inspired by the values and mission of the 19th Century press that made a case for independence in West Africa, it is like a pilgrimage coming to Freetown, because it all started here and the city deserves the consecration of a mechanism that seeks to renew and strengthen the critical values of truth as the epicentre of an accountability journalism,” Mr Olorunyomi said.
He thanked the journalists, editors, publishers and public officials who graced the occasion.